DECATUR, Miss. (AP) – John Fortenberry was shaking hands after a game when an opponent noticed something strange about his right eye.

It wasn’t there.

“I couldn’t find my patch that morning, and they were all staring at me pretty hard,” Fortenberry said.

At least Fortenberry can laugh about his frightening injury.

He says he’s used to the double takes that come with having a patch concealing an empty socket.

Two years after a batted ball struck him in the face and cost him his eye, the sophomore pitcher at East Central Community College has returned to the mound and is determined not to let the injury keep him from playing at a major college.

“He has a disability as far as only having one eye, but as a player he’s just like the rest of the guys,” said coach Jake Yarborough.

“He works hard, and he’s got a competitive streak about him. … If he’s interested in (a college scholarship), I think he has a chance.”

Fortenberry is 3-2 this season with a 5.76 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 29 innings while pitching with a helmet and cage mask protecting his face.

The mask, which resembles those worn by college hockey players and some bullriders, occasionally blocks his vision when he looks back to second base.

But the right-hander can watch a runner on first when working from the stretch.

“If it had been my left eye, it would have been a lot worse,” he said.

Still, what happened to Fortenberry’s right eye on Jan. 23, 2004, was pretty gruesome.

Pitching in an intrasquad scrimmage, he threw a fastball outside.

The hitter turned on the pitch and drove it into Fortenberry’s right cheek.

“It was more of a sound than a sight,” said Yarborough, coaching third base at the time.

“You could hear it, it was a smack, and you knew it was bad.”

Fortenberry said the impact crushed his eyeball and shattered several facial bones. He crumpled to the ground in what the coach called a bloody mess, but remained conscious as he was taken to a hospital.

“I remember all of it,” he said. “I just fell down, grabbed my face. That was all I could think of.”

Doctors rebuilt Fortenberry’s face with three plates and 29 screws now hold it together, but they couldn’t save the eye. A ball made of coral was placed in the socket, wrapped in the network of remaining blood vessels and muscles and tucked behind a black patch – which he’ll wear until he receives his prosthetic eye.

“The first couple of days (after the injury), I woke up and thought, “I’m probably done. I’m not going to play again,”‘ Fortenberry said. “And then somebody came in and told me I couldn’t ever play again, and I don’t really like when people say that.

“So I had to get back out here and show that I could.”

He returned to the field before last season, pitching in a sandlot against a semipro team near his hometown of Carthage, Miss., and the first hitter he faced tapped a weak grounder back to the mound.

“I jumped out of the way of it. I was scared,” he said.

Eventually, his face healed, his courage returned and he pitched for East Central in 2005, going 2-4 as a freshman with a 4.06 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 51 innings.

Yarborough says Fortenberry’s fastball tops out at 84 mph, his curveball breaks more sharply than before and – most importantly – no college coach or pro scout can question his toughness.

“I knew he had the determination to come back,” Yarborough said.

AP-ES-04-11-06 1444EDT